When halftime of Saturday’s contest between USC and Arizona State rolled around, one downright staggering statistic helped explain the Trojans’ 35-0 advantage.
In the midst of steamrolling past the Sun Devils, the Trojans converted on eight of 10 third down chances in the first half -- most of which were third and long -- and routinely exploited a blitz-heavy ASU defense that never generated the pressure it needed to cash in on a defensive scheme predicated on taking some risk.
USC redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler picked apart ASU’s defense at the second and third levels, and managed to convert on third down chances of nine yards or more on an astounding six different occasions before halftime.
This week, ASU will move on from facing one of the most seasoned passers in the conference, and instead square off against one of the freshest faces in college football. True freshman Josh Rosen will make just the fifth start of his career on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, and even though ASU’s hyper-aggressive blitzing approach failed against USC, it’s likely the Sun Devils will roll out a similar defensive game plan in an effort to expose the conference’s youngest signal-caller’s inexperience.
“With Rosen, we’ve got to do a nice job of keeping him guessing, don’t let him get comfortable in the pocket, mix some things up coverage-wise, make him think that what he sees might not be actually what he is seeing, so we’ve got to keep him off balanced,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “That’s their whole deal, their system is very balanced, you can’t let him maintain that balance.”
In three-plus seasons under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have rarely held back in terms of attempting to create pressure, and in the past two years, it’s fair to say ASU has even ratcheted up its blitz packages and stunts.
ASU’s defensive identity is widely known, and even after its scheme failed in contests like the 2013 Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech and last Saturday’s game against USC, the Sun Devils can still point to examples such as a nine-sack performance in a win over UCLA in 2013 and a five-turnover output from Notre Dame last season as instances in which defensive pressure lifted ASU to victory.
The Sun Devils never disclose the intricate details of their defensive game plan during the week, but this week, players and coaches emphasized the importance of pressuring Rosen because he has yet to face a defensive that attempts to create chaos and havoc in the backfield quite like ASU does.
Though Rosen is completing more than 60 percent of his passes and has demonstrated remarkable touch for a freshmen on a number of deep balls, he has thrown four interceptions in four games and senior cornerback Kweishi Brown hinted the Sun Devils have a plan in place to induce more ill-advised passes.
“He’s a young quarterback and he’s actually doing really good,” Brown said. “He’s played different teams, but he hasn’t played us yet, and we’ve got a plan for him. If we go out and do our 1/11th and just do our job, we’ll shut him down, and that’s the plan.”
UCLA’s offensive line has morphed into a strength for the Bruins this season, especially after injuries and personnel losses disrupted continuity along the offensive front a season ago. Despite allowing two sacks against Arizona, Rosen typically had plenty of time to decipher coverages and the Bruins did a nice job of keeping him upright in the pocket.
Prior to giving up the sacks against Arizona, UCLA had not surrendered a single sack through its first three games, so it’s clear Rosen has yet to experience what it feels like to be a quarterback under siege at the college level.
ASU sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam leads the Sun Devils in sacks this season with 3.0, and said the Sun Devils are planning to dial up the pressure and see if Rosen can handle it.
“He’s (Rosen) a pretty good quarterback for a freshman, especially coming in in this type of league,” Sam said. “He’s doing pretty good, but I feel like our defense is good, we have some things for their offense that we’re going to get after him a little bit so we’ll have our game plan all ready.”
At the outset of the week, Graham said USC might be the most talented team in the Pac-12, but UCLA had one of the top coaching staffs. Graham’s assessment has proved especially accurate with the way the Bruins’ coaches have handled the transition from three-year starter Brett Hundley to Rosen, as they have given Rosen the tools to be successful without asking him to go above and beyond his call of duty.
Rosen rarely looks flustered on the field, and like Kessler has for the Trojans, he’s shown a willingness to throw to check down options instead of heaving up home run balls.
Rosen’s ability to embrace game plans and his role within the system has made UCLA’s offense difficult to stop this season, and Patterson said those qualities have enabled the Bruins’ consistency.
“I think he’s doing a nice job of spreading the football around, he’s not doing anything to put the ball in jeopardy, and he’s got playmakers around him and he’s letting his system work for him,” Patterson said.
Fans who followed Arizona State before Graham’s arrival know some of current UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s tendencies. Mazzone’s spread scheme found its way to Tempe for the final two years of Dennis Erickson’s tenure, and it aided former Sun Devil Brock Osweiler en route to seven 300-yard passing games in his career.
Mazzone still employs quite a few four receiver sets, and he’s always had a propensity for having running backs run swing routes out of the backfield to serve as check downs on passing plays. This year, with such a talented running back in redshirt junior Paul Perkins Mazzone has included more play-action into his play-calling, and redshirt freshman Devil backer Ismael Murphy-Richardson said it’s a tendency the Sun Devils have taken note of.
“There’s a lot of play-action, and they play-action very well, but other than that, it’s your typical spread offense,” Murphy-Richardson said. “So that just means we have to execute.”
Aside from the obvious need to get to the quarterback faster when rushing five or six defenders, part of the Sun Devils’ ability to execute this week is shutting down Perkins.
At his Monday press conference, Graham said Perkins, the older brother of ASU freshman quarterback Bryce Perkins is having an MVP-caliber season so far for the Bruins. Perkins’ combination of size, strength and speed has helped him to the second best yards per game total in the Pac-12 this year, and Patterson said running through tackles was a point of emphasis at practice this week.
“I tell you, he has great balance, he has great vision, he’s a very patient runner, and he just kind of takes what the defense gives him,” Patterson said. “He’s very patient on the inside zone, and you can just tell he’s very strong. You have to tackle him, he makes you tackle him every down. If you’re just sitting there in one-on-one situations, he’s going to make you miss and you’ve got to do a great job swarm tackling him.”
One of the great challenges in containing the Bruins over the past few seasons was the run-pass dynamic featuring Perkins and Hundley. UCLA’s offense had as much balance as any team in the Pac-12, and so far this season, the same has held true.
Though Rosen doesn’t possess the same type of fleet-footedness Hundley did for the Bruins in escaping the pocket, he has helped maintained their downfield passing attack as UCLA’s receivers are averaging more than 12 yards per catch this season.
Last week, ASU primarily focused on eliminating USC’s ground game and forced the Trojans to beat them through the air. That strategy backfired as Kessler had no trouble dissecting a defense with fewer players operating in space, but the Sun Devils are hoping stacking the box and taking away the threat of Perkins will pay dividends this week.
“They’re (UCLA) 50/50 run-pass and they do a great job of keeping you off balance so you have to obviously take away something, you have to make them one-dimensional and you can’t allow them to establish the run game and keep you off balance and that’s what he’s (Rosen) done,” Patterson said. “He’s done a nice job staying out of long-yardage situations.”
Even the ASU secondary is focused on stopping Perkins this week, as it knows when UCLA spreads the Sun Devil defense out with its formations, there will be opportunities for the Bruins to hit the perimeter in the running game.
With the combination of spread sets, a power back and a quarterback who is excelling at taking what the defense gives to him, ASU’s secondary cannot afford to miss key reads or fail on assignments. Furthermore, if Perkins does get to the outside, defensive backs coach Chris Ball said it’s up to the safeties and corners to corral Perkins before he has the chance to break loose.
“He’s (Perkins) just tough to bring down,” Ball said. “He’s very disciplined, he’s a great kid, a great character kid, he’s very smart and has great vision, we just have to, when we get on him, stop the engine and get him down.”
In the past three seasons, the Bruins have scored 45, 33 and 62 points against the Sun Devils. Even though the Sun Devils do have a victory over UCLA in that span, the Bruins remain the one Pac-12 South opponent that has consistently been able to move the ball against ASU since Graham’s arrival.
Though teams like USC might have more talent at skill positions, Brown said a team like UCLA can pose a greater challenge to ASU because of the way it plays as a unit.
“I would say USC had more talent, but UCLA has more of a team, more of a unit, and we’ve got to stop that,” Brown said. “They’ve got good receivers, they’ve got a nice running back, and we’ve got to come in and play our football.”
The Sun Devils won’t keep anyone guessing defensively as to what “our football” means. Regardless of the opponent, ASU will blitz, stunt, and do anything it can to create pressure. What remains to be seen is if the Sun Devils can execute, and if they can, how it will impact a freshman quarterback who has yet to see anything quite like it.
While ASU has been struggling to find its offensive rhythm through the first four games of the season, there’s a glimmer of hope in the form of the Sun Devils’ ability to run the football and UCLA’s inability to stop the run.
So far this season UCLA is last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing opponents to rush for an average of 198.2 yards per game. Last week against Arizona, the Bruins defense gave up 353 rushing yards (6.0 per carry) and the Wildcats had a pair of two 100-yard rushers in quarterback Jerrard Randall and running back Nick Wilson.
Last year, ASU got scorched by the Bruins in Tempe, 62-27, and a key reason was UCLA kept ASU’s rushing attack in check. Former ASU running back Deantre Lewis lead the charge for the Sun Devils with 46 rushing yards on the night while senior wide receiver D.J. Foster only had 30 rushing yards.
ASU senior center Nick Kelly said this year, the Sun Devils plan to use its uptempo offense to its advantage and in regards to counteracting UCLA’s defensive scheme, he doesn’t see many differences from this year to last despite UCLA hiring a new defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley earlier in the year.
“So far it just looks like how they’ve been running it last year, everything keeping it the same,” Kelly said. “Three-down, four-down fronts and everything like that. We’re just making sure we handle the personnel better than we did last year.”
Like last year against UCLA, ASU got burned at home last week to the Trojans and despite the loss, Kelly sees some similarities between the two defenses that could help the Sun Devils for this upcoming matchup.
“Honestly USC likes to run a three-down more and UCLA is more balanced with a three-down, four-down, but they’re actually kind of similar in a sense,” Kelly said. “Both talented teams and both top Pac-12 teams.”
ASU senior wide receiver Gary Chambers said the Bruins’ secondary as a whole was almost similar to USC, but UCLA is athletically better at getting to the ball faster.
“I think UCLA, they kind of swarm kind of better,” Chambers said. “The defensive line can go out and get to the ball, their linebackers can kind of swarm to the ball, but we still have to go out and play them before I can say anything like that.”
For the Bruins, last week was their first game without All-American linebacker Myles Jack, who is out with a season-ending knee injury. Jack’s injury added on to UCLA’s long list of injuries already this season with defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau both already out for the season.
But don’t expect the injuries to help ASU out in any way. Kelly said despite all the injuries to UCLA’s defense, ASU knows going against the Bruins’ front seven will especially challenging since they play low and physical and have 310-pound defensive lineman Kenneth Clark leading the charge.
“He’s a good player,” Kelly said. “Their whole d-line is pretty solid. Eddie Vanderdoes is out and he was a really good 3-tech for them. Really good defensive player, but as long as we do our jobs, just make sure we have the correct technique we’ll be fine.”
Looking into the Bruins secondary, despite UCLA losing Moreau for the season, junior cornerback Ishmael Adams was reinstated from his suspension last week. Against Arizona, he came up with an interception and one tackle.
Last year against ASU, Adams had a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime, followed by a 100-yard kickoff return for another touchdown in the third quarter.
For Chambers, he sees the Bruins’ secondary as loaded with athletic playmakers who use their strength and speed to their advantage. So far this year, UCLA is No. 1 in the Pac-12 for pass defense, only allowing opponents to get an average of 163.2 yards in the air.
ASU has been averaging 267.8 yards of receiving per game.
“They get to the ball really well, they’re athletic, a lot of energy,” Chambers said. “They like to run around. They run around to the ball really well. It’s going to be fast. Lots of movement, lots of athleticism.”
As far as UCLA’s schemes in the secondary, Chambers said they have a lot of talent, but he sees ASU as having equal speed and athleticism on its offense and team is ready for some good one-on-one matchups on the outside.
“They have a pretty balanced defense, but we definitely are looking forward to some man-to man-coverage hopefully,” Chambers said. “Hopefully we can get some one-on-ones going and go out there and win those one-on-ones versus them and hopefully when they zone up, our scheme and play calling are effective.”